Many of us share Samuel Johnson’ admission that “the biographical part of literature is what I love most,” because great writers perform the world’s most precious and enduring work. But the popularization of the Fitzgerald myth has diminished his stature and cheapened his work. He is regarded by a certain kind of Twenties buff as having scribbled his masterpieces during the course of a lifelong bender. Given the kind of writer he was, it is proper to identify Fitzgerald with his material; but it is a distortion of the record to portray him as an uncritical reveler. There was always a judging process operating in himòcombined, in his finest work, with a quality of aspiration. Zelda Fitzgerald observed after her husband’s death: “I do not know that a personality can be divorced from the times which evoke it. . . . I feel that Scott’s greatest contribution was the dramatization of a heart-broken + despairing era, giving it a new raison-d’etre in the sense of tragic courage with which he endowed it.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald created his own legends. His life frequently overshadows his work as he has become an archetypal figureòor a cluster of overlapping archetypes: the drunken writer, the ruined novelist, the spoiled genius, the personification of the Jazz Age, the sacrificial victim of the Depression. These images were largely his own fault because he dramatized his success and failure. Loving attention, he embraced his symbolic roles. The glamour, the triumph, the euphoria, the heartbreak, and the tragedy of his life were genuine; but the most important thing is what he wrote. Everything else matters only to the extent that it explicates his work or clarifies his career. But it is impossible to dissociate a great writer from his work, and Fitzgerald was one of the most personal authors.
No doubt André Maurois was correct in decreeing that “the need to express oneself in writing springs from a maladjustment to life, or from an inner conflict, which the adolescent (or grown man) cannot resolve in action.” The maladjustment may account for the compulsion to write, but not for genius. There is no way to explain why the son of an unsuccessful manufacturer of wicker furniture wrote the best American prose.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life had “some sort of epic grandeur.” He was a hero with many flaws, but a hero. In a professional career of twenty years he wrote three of the great American novels (one of them unfinished) and a score of brilliant stories while afflicted with a host of troubles, many of his own making. He was honorable and generous. His words endure.
At the time of his death at age forty-four, F. Scott Fitzgerald was considered an exemplary and monitory figure. There was general agreement that he epitomized his generation, that he had not fulfilled his genius, that his history provided a warning. It would have seemed hyperbolic in 1940 to claim that his elegy had been written in 1821 when Shelley mourned KeatsòFitzgerald’s favorite poetòin Adonäis:
till the Future dares / Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be / An echo and a light unto Eternity!
- Revised from Matthew J. Bruccoli’s Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, second revised edition (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002).
This F. Scott Fitzgerald Centenary website was launched in 1996, the 100th anniversary of his birth. The site is designed to increase awareness of a great American writer and to celebrate his writings, his life, and his relationship with other writers of the twentieth century. The website draws extensively on books, photographs, and related materials in the Matthew J. and Arlyn Bruccoli Collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald at at the Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina.
This page updated December 4, 2003.
Copyright 2003, the Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina.